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In a recent article for The Vancouver Sun, Douglas Todd asks the question: “Is niceness a curse in leadership, including politics?” I think it’s a great question, a question well-worth taking a moment to reflect upon.
Todd begins by asking:
Is niceness a curse in leadership? Do people with understanding reputations always finish last in politics, business and life?
He goes on to talk about two hotly contested campaigns in British Columbia and the fact that the media has described both candidates as “nice,” “gentle” and “decent.” The author interprets these adjectives as a questioning of whether these leaders would be willing
to make the hard choices, bend rules to win or compromise their innocence to accomplish a greater purpose.
To say it another way, “Does leadership require you to sacrifice integrity?”
I would like to re-frame the question itself, because I think there is a deeper assumption that lies beneath it and that is whether leadership is about image and “creating reality” through words or is it something more? I believe it’s something more and that choosing the correct form of communication is not so much a matter of “nice” versus “mean” as it is a matter of “nice” plus truth. It’s a matter of the wise choice of words combined with a sterling record for integrity.
Ronald Reagan’s ability to devastate his opponent’s arguments in the very process of being “nice” is a great model for how to be nice and take on the tough issues at the same time, all the while maintaining one’s integrity. You may have disagreed with Reagan’s politics, but you could never accuse him of shrinking back from his convictions for fear of losing popularity.
Too many people have bought into the fallacy that we “create our own reality.” That may be true to some extent, but only at a very shallow level. That kind of reality cannot and will not last. The truth has a strange way of forcing itself to the surface, especially in a nation that continues to enjoy freedom of speech. People know the truth, almost intuitively. People have a basic instinct for sniffing out truth.
I propose that the key to effective leadership communication is the combination of “niceness” and truth. Truth destroys error and lies and, in so doing, becomes a weapon of myth destruction. You don’t have to be mean to tell the truth (though many people today interpret truth as “meanness”). Too many politicians and other leaders think that rhetoric and name-calling can make up for what they know in their hearts is a lie. It can’t.
I conclude with these four simple yet powerful suggestions for how to empower your public communication to enhance your leadership capability:
- Speak with facts. No amount of wit can make up for ignorance.
- Use humor to alleviate tension.
- Smile. This creates conceptual dissonance for those who interpret truth as meanness.
- Boldly address the tough issues with concrete examples.
How about you? Have you ever been tempted to sacrifice the truth in order to maintain an appearance of being nice? Can you think of more creative ways you could have spoken the truth without alienating your audience? What are your stories in this area?
Greg Waddell provides consulting services for churches and organizations. Contact Dr. Waddell today at gregwaddell[at]leadstrategic.com to discuss the needs of your organization.